Sunday, November 21, 2010

Brian De Palma: Home Movies

Considering the often-questionable acting prowess seen on the screen in Brian De Palma's movies, to say nothing of the borderline anarchy of his early work, accusations that the director had no idea what he was doing were understandable, if myopic. Of course, both of those traits were deliberate moves by a man both obsessed with the artifice of cinema and always on the lookout for a good joke, preferably at the expense of the audience.

Made during New Hollywood's implosion, this low-budget, 16mm comedy, filmed during De Palma's time as a guest lecturer at Sarah Lawrence College, looks on the surface like an attempt to return to the director's early mode of filmmaking, that hyper-political, Godardian slapstick. But it might also be the director's answer to those critics who charged De Palma with being an incompetent: if they thought he didn't understand film form before, just wait until they got a load of this.

Granted, that interpretation gives away my opinion of the film, not to mention suggests that De Palma intentionally made this to be a nearly unwatchable train wreck. But I cannot lie: he and his students, who coordinated with the director on the project, crafted one stiff comedy. While I do not hold most of the earliest films of De Palma in highest regard (with the exceptions of Hi, Mom! and Phantom of the Paradise), I find those early comedies funny precisely because the humor is as reflective of De Palma's deep knowledge and rejection of film form at the onset of his career as the direction itself. De Palma knew the rules before breaking them, and he appears to use the students to see what would happen if someone never bothered to learn the "proper" way to make a film. I think of this wonderful quote by bass virtuoso Victor Wooten: "If you take a newborn baby and put them on the instrument, they're going to get sounds out of it that I can't get out of it, so we're all the best." Perhaps by letting these people make the film they want before someone tells them how to do it, they can become the next generation of movers and shakers. And by limiting the budget, De Palma not only teaches others but himself how to be ingenuous in a time when budgets were starting to inflate beyond reason.

At the same time, Home Movies' central flaw is the uneasy tug-of-war between its more chaotic side and a loyalty to conventional comedy structure that makes what could have been free-form brilliance into a sloppy take on what looks suspiciously like an attempt to hitch wagons to the National Lampoon's contemporary success with teen comedies. Plus, the students at Sarah Lawrence had an advantage most film students do not: they got to make their movie with proven actors, either old character standbys from De Palma's films or some of his stars. Nancy Allen is a major character, and Kirk Douglas himself appears as "The Maestro," an obvious De Palma stand-in who instructs the classroom full of students working on the film.

Ostensibly the story of Dennis Byrd (Keith Gordon, essentially laying the framework for his career here as a shy, likable geek), a young man trapped in a highly dysfunctional family, Home Movies immediately throws the audience for a loop, playing the beginning of Byrd's story through the classroom as the Maestro lectures not only the class but the film crew he brings with him at all times. Dennis, pining for his brother's fiancée, Kristina (Nancy Allen), not only attempts to convince her that his domineering brother isn't the saint people inexplicably think he is but tries to uncover his surgeon father's infidelity. The Maestro occasionally intrudes upon Dennis' life, chastising the boy for sitting in a tree spying on his dad and making himself an extra in his own life instead of the star. He instructs Dennis to film his own life to ensure that he finally becomes the protagonist of his existence, meaning that Home Movies follows The Maestro and his class watching a movie of a young man's life as that man also films that life. It might be worthy of Charlie Kaufman if the execution wasn't so clumsy.

I do not like to guess a filmmaker's motives unless I am feeling particularly dismissive; it's all too easy to forgive or damn a film by building up a strawman of the director's intent and hanging interpretation off of a wild guess. With Home Movies, you can't even speculate on the construction: De Palma's themes and style are all over this movie, from the focus on film's artifice and voyeurism to the constant division within the frame by beams and lines, effectively creating homemade split-screen. And even with the 16mm stock, Home Movies does look cinematic. Does this mean the director edged aside his students to make entirely his movie? Or did De Palma, renowned for paying tribute (if not outright stealing) to the films he loves, encourage his students to spoof him?

Home Movies certainly has some of the feel of De Palm's early films, with such exaggerated madness as Dennis' mother stumbling in on Dennis making out with a woman, being reminded of her husband's own tomfoolery and subsequently faking her suicide by pill overdose (a sequence that ends in one of the few funny bits in the film as the doctor husband pumps her stomach). Elsewhere, Kristina appears to be possessed by a stuffed rabbit that brings out her id, making for yet more oddball comedy that is just too silly to work. Kristina's attempts to cure herself of her addictions, chiefly to fast food and sex, make for the funniest recurring joke of the film, but the joke eventually wears thin.

To be honest, the aspect of the film that made me laugh the hardest was how natural Keith Gordon was. Nearly everyone in all De Palma films up to this point has been deliberately exaggerated, but Gordon is one of the few to act like someone who just got told to make a film of his life. At long last, a performance people could praise, and it's in the one film that would have benefited from total wackiness.

Still, there are some things that work here. The comedy may be a dud, but the ideas behind Home Movies are intriguing, if infuriatingly unfocused. Dennis' brother, James (Gerrit Graham), teaches a course he calls "Spartanetics," a hypermasculine, young adult version of the Boy Scouts advancing the idea of male self-sufficiency. De Palma ruthlessly skewers this idiot, even as most of the characters in the film look up to him. Likewise, the Maestro's class, Explorations on Star Theory, encourages people to make themselves the matinee name in the film of their lives, but with manly man Douglas preaching the message, the course puts out a subtly patriarchal view. De Palma was on the cusp of a string of films that would earn accusations of misogyny at almost every turn, but the director is openly mocking of chauvinism here, and by filtering some of the masculinity through the Maestro and his brand of filmmaking, De Palma even spares an attack for the sexism inherent in cinema.

By titling the film Home Movies, De Palma suggests one of two things: that he loves the cinema so much that he would equate the act of helping students get their first hands-on experience at filmmaking with tapes of babies learning their first words or taking their first steps, or that, in making the film, he realizes that his early style of filmmaking is stuck in the past where he cannot return to it. Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in-between. In an interview with Gerald Peary around the time of the film's release, De Palma explained his issue with film schools: "The real trouble with film school is that the people teaching are so far out of the industry that they don't give the students an idea of what's happening. Students should be exposed to the best people in the profession. If you study surgery, you study with the best doctors working in the hospital. You don't study with the ones who couldn't get a job." 1 That's an interesting take, but also one that underlines how much of a vanity project Home Movies is, De Palma's excuse to use the clout he'd gathered up to hide from the mainstream for awhile just as he was starting to break into it. There's an air of sadness at the end because of this, as De Palma assembles the final cut and realizes he can never go back to what he used to be. If he could have seen the critical bloodbath that awaited him in the coming decade, Home Movies might well have been a full, Grecian tragedy.

1Interview with Brian De Palma, by Gerald Peary. Originally published in Take One, January 1979.

1 comment:

  1. Great review. i have a soft spot for this film (as a de palma fangirl) and think it's pretty hilarious. It is a hot mess and I have often wondered what the hell bdep was trying to say, but in the end I just let go and let the hilarity of the Byrd clan wash over me. Also I find Nancy Allen irresistibly likable in this film in a way that i usually don't.